Listening through the Mountain Goats (1991–2002)


19. Feb. 2011, 2:40

Me and my friend Ian are listening through The Mountain Goats' entire catalog for a number of reasons, namely: 1) there is a new album coming out and it seems appropriate, 2) Ian is only recently becoming a tMG superfan and needs to listen to everything again, and 3) everyone should be listening to the entire tMG catalog all the time anyway. We're going to cover one year per week. So without further ado:

1991 (posted 18 feb)
The year I was born, and the year the Mountain Goats were born, too. Seems fitting. John did more than I did in 1991, namely, recording Taboo VI: The Homecoming. It's rough, but there are some real gems.
Favorite song: I think we can all agree that Going to Alaska is the best song on Taboo VI. At least, it's persevered the longest in tMG's live sets. And it's a really good song. And the first in the going to series!!
Favorite lyric: "you say these rocks are treacherous / but how long has it been since you've seen my feet?" from Solomon Revisited. At Zoop! 2007, John said that line references actual mountain goats, who climb rocks, so I like the line even more.
Other favorite parts: The proto-Bright Mountain Choir background noise on This Magic Moment. John's vocals are extra-crispy on that song.

1992 (posted 25 feb)
The tMG jump from 1991 to 1992 is like the jump from the Geometric period to the Archaic period of Greek art, viz., it's an explosion of creativity, with more work at a higher caliber. It's amazing. My tMG collection comprises of The Hound Chronicles, Songs for Petronius, Transmissions to Horace, and two live bootlegs (Casa de Badger and KSPC Pomona).
Favorite song: I'd love to say Alpha Negative or שקט, because those are my two favorites from The Hound Chronicles. But I think the really best song from 1992 is Alpha Desperation March. It's one my favorite of all the Alpha songs, especially of the early batch. This song has experienced surprisingly consistent popularity in setlists, and for that I'm glad. The "ha! aha! aha!" part serves as my ringtone.
Favorite lyric: "hey, what are you doing, my love? / hey, didn't I just tell you that such a thing / would be over and above what's called for in this case / pull the ski mask away from your face / it won't be necessary / it won't be necessary now" from Pure Love. I love the words to "Pure Love" because while in one way they are telling a very specific story, in another way they're very open-ended and you can imagine almost anything about it.
Favorite live recording: It's really hard to pick a favorite song from the Live at KSPC Pomona bootleg I have. Only five songs from the set survive; all feature the Bright Mountain Choir, and all are equally good. (Emphasis on the greatness of the Bright Mountain Choir!) I suppose if I had to pick a favorite, it would be Let the Dogs Come Out & Chilean Fire Barrel Song. John's guitar playing is superb, his vocals are powerful and melodious, the songs are generally very advanced in their rhythm and structure, and they meld together quite well (especially considering John can't remember the beginning of "Chilean Fire Barrel Song".
Other favorite parts: The sheer power of John's vocals on Going to Wisconsin; the bizarrely sexual lyrics of In the Cane Fields, showing John's songwriting versatility all the way back in 1992; the way The Bad Doctor makes me happy when I listen to it; the head-sticking potency of Historiography's chorus.

1993 (posted 4 mar)
Consisting of Hot Garden Stomp, Beautiful Rat Sunset, Philyra, and Chile De Arbol.
Favorite song: The first song I remember really loving was Beach House, so I will say that is my favorite song from 1993. Like The Monkey Song, its lyrics are classic early-tMG humor, but Beach House is a great song in addition to the humor. It's jam-packed with hard-to-sing phrases. Very close second place favorites are Sun Song and Going to Japan. Moral: Hot Garden Stomp is one fantastic tape.
Favorite lyric: "they've implemented a new system on the / exhaust lines of the buses / and now the air is fresh and sweet and clean when they pass by / and the bright sun shines down on our fair city / and young cats play on people's front lawns" from Fresh Berries for You. This song has always held a special place in my heart. It has that Waco-ish, Against Pollution-ish sort of eschatological optimism that John does very well. Affecting.
Other favorite parts: The rhythm of Extreme South #1; the entire thing of Chile De Arbol; the classic JD rage of Feed This End; the amazing way John covers Tell Me on a Sunday and makes it perfectly consistent with the rest of his songs.

1994 (posted 11 mar)
We've hit the big time! In addition to Zopilote Machine, the first tMG LP to be released on cd, we have Taking the Dative, Yam, the King of Crops, and Beautiful Rat Sunset. Wow.
Favorite song: Pure Heat. Such a good song. So delightfully fun to sing in its rhythmic chorus. What is the song about? Why is the girl's dress torn and why are her fingers dripping kerosene? I don't really know. But it's a fun puzzle to think through.
Favorite lyric: "I laid my son on the bier, I burned the wreath / fire overhead, water underneath / you can stand up or you can run / but you and I both know what you've done / and I will carry you home in my teeth" from Grendel's Mother. Good imagery, good literary allusions, good emotional quality.
Favorite live recording: Song From the Shore Line played in Columbus, Ohio, some time in 1994. I don't have a ton of live stuff for 1994, and this is probably my favorite of what I have. It's one of those songs that never made it onto a release, but it's a nice little song. Reminds me of Earth Air Water Trees.
Other favorite parts: "good news like a rare blood disorder" in Azo Tle Nelli in Tlalticpac?; the pleasantly cohesive nature of Yam, the King of Crops (especially the references to yams!); the way Song for Tura Satana is pretty much the apex of John's casio jams; the phrase "the lord of the snails is born" in Quetzalcoatl Is Born; the way all the songs on Beautiful Rat Sunset have a particular feel that I can't quite put my finger on.

1995 (posted 19 mar)
Things are just getting better and better. Namely: Sweden. Being quite honest, I would say that Sweden is one of my least favorite pre-4AD albums. Not because I dislike it, but just because it's so darn cryptic and austere. I have always liked a handful of songs from the album, but it's only very recently that I've started to love the album in its own right. (More about that once we get to the 2010 section of this project!) Even so, 1995 is so much more than Sweden. There's a bunch of EPs and compilation tracks, most of which feature the fabulous and talented Rachel Ware. It is a great year.
Favorite song: Flight 717: Going to Denmark. I would venture to say this is one of John's best songs of all time. It is musically very complex: it has a nice little bridge, which is unusual, and a surprisingly hook-y chorus. It's the kind of song that I can see a band like Superchunk covering and turning into a rocking anthem. It's that good.
Favorite lyric: "I know that in California the waves break on the beach. / and I know that the foam on the breaking waves / is as white as household bleach" from California Song. It's simple and sweet and it's got a Casio and it's very singable. Win win win.
Favorite live recording: Cut Your Hair played at the Chameleon, San Francisco, Calif., 15 jan 1995. Five words: John and Rachel covering Pavement.
Other favorite parts: the "tell me why you made threats against the life of the prime minister of Canada" line in The Admonishing Song—it's a totally straightforward, generalized song about being mean, then John sings that line and it takes on a whole new specificity; the last stanza of Cold Milk Bottle is arguably the best ending of any tMG album; John and Rachel's completely bizarre setlist when they play on VPRO radio in the Netherlands (it's Lonesome Surprise, where Dennis Callaci phones in his vocals and is therefore weirdly out-of-sync with the band, No, I Can't, Moon and Sand, and Brave, a Chris Knox cover. Isn't that the most absurd tMG setlist you can think of?); Alastair Galbraith's contributions to Orange Raja, Blood Royal (especially the New-Zealand-y background vocals on Blood Royal); everything about Flashing Lights; the 1 Corinthians 13:11 quotation in Song for John Davis.

1996 (posted 25 mar)
I have to be in a particular mood to listen to Nothing for Juice. I'd venture to say it's the weirdest record in the tMG catalog. Yes, I am mostly saying that because of the electric guitar parts. It took me a long time to start liking those parts.
Favorite song: Going to Scotland, because I think it's one of the best John-and-Rachel songs in tMG's catalog. The harmony is just fantastic.
Favorite lyric: "when I saw it on the bakery carousel / I knew I had to have it for my own / I eased it out / and I brought it home / why don't you try some / I already had some myself / is that the most delicious thing / you ever tasted in your life?" from Orange Ball of Pain. What is this song about?! If you ignore the part about the bakery carousel, the narrative seems uncannily similar to Adam and Eve's fall in Genesis 3. Yes? The song is sung with Eve as narrator, right? Serious consequences come from stealing something delicious and encouraging your companion to eat it with you.
Favorite live recording: I can't narrow it down to a specific song, but John's appearance on some unidentified Gothenburg radio station is one of my favorite things ever. The radio host, who is clearly maladroit with the English language, carries on a charmingly casual on-air conversation with John between songs. John covers Rickie Lee Jones and talks about vegetarianism.
Other favorite parts: The delightful sound of Rachel's bass playing in Going to Bogotá; the way I can close my eyes and imagine snow falling when I hear Going to Reykjavik; the brilliance that is Jack and Faye; "mo-RIS-sey".

1997, 1998, 1999 (posted 8 apr)
Full Force Galesburg! This is definitely one of my favorite oldgoat LPs. I love it so much I don't mind that John didn't release any more albums for the next two years. Since there were no LPs released in 1998 and 1999, I'm lumping all three years together for the purposes of this journal entry. I do have 12.5 hours of live tMG for these three years, though, so I'll spend some time talking about those!
Favorite song: New Britain. The best album opener in the tMG catalog. It's thrilling. I can't think of much else to say about it, other than that you should go listen to it right now if you aren't already.
Favorite lyric: "snake oil peddlers / we can spot 'em half a mile away / but these days, these days / we drink a lot of snake oil" from Please Come Home to Hamngatan. This is one of those little songs tucked away on Ghana that I never really noticed until I split up Ghana's songs into their original constituent releases. But what a great and simple song this is. I like the way the verses are not all exactly structured the same way.
Favorite live recordings:
  1. Alistair Galbraith joins John at the end of the show at at Brownie's (New York, N.Y., 12 apr 1998) to play violin on Blood Royal and Going to Georgia, and that is a really interesting sound.
  2. John plays Letter From A Motel at both Cat's Cradle (Chapel Hill, N.C., 27 jan 1999) and CD Exchange (Bloomington, In., 30 jan 1999), and I believe those are the only two times he has ever played it. It's got a very interesting vibe considering it's an Alpha song.
  3. Everyone is crazy about Shower with very good reason. It is probably the best of all yelling-tMG-songs.
  4. Poltergeist gets a lot of play during these years. It's such a fantastic, poignant song that sounds to me like it belongs on The Coroner's Gambit. Too bad it was never recorded and is now mostly forgotten.
  5. John sings Nikki Oh Nikki at CBGB (New York, N.Y., 23 july 1999) at least two years before it was recorded by John Vanderslice. Unsurprisingly, it sounds just like a tMG song, and its lyrics are stupendous: "you know that girl who you told your secrets to back in high school / the one who faithfully broadcast all of them / throughout the generous pool of your mutual acquaintances / and made it sound like you were psycho / and in need of professional help / yes, yes. yes you do remember".
  6. Speaking of that CBGB show… I think it's one of the best tMG bootlegs I have. John begins the set coming out onstage and saying "We are the Mountain Goats. My name is Rumpelstiltskin. I have come for the child you promised me when I was last here." Other highlights include Seed Song, Pseudothyrum Song, Going to Maryland, and The Irony Engine.
  7. John plays a one-off song called Tampa at CD Exchange (Bloomington, In., 30 jan 1999), which is a very good, very angry song that includes the phrase "you can soak in a bathtub full of gasoline / but you will never get your hands clean".
  8. Cow Haus (Tallahassee, Fl., 6 feb 1998) is in my top three favorite bootlegs. It has my favorite performances of Tulsa Imperative, Some Swedish Trees, Masher, Third Snow Song, Orange Ball of Hate, and Tell Me on a Sunday. I am not being hyperbolic. John is in rare form and it is a great listen.
  9. Crossing Border (Amsterdam, Netherlands, 9 oct 1999) is a great set because it includes 1) a Neutral Milk Hotel cover and 2) Lalitree on banjo.

Other favorite parts: Narakaloka makes a great alarm-clock-radio song (the rest of New Asian Cinema, too! It is a fantastic EP that has a very particular feeling about it); the electric guitar parts on FFG seem to fit much better than the ones on NFJ, and I fully approve of them; Down Here and Weekend In Western Illinois are two of my other favorite songs from FFG; I always think of this Xtranormal video whenever I hear Masher… imagine how much fun that must be (thanks, forums!); of course, Golden Boy is a great song, even if John is a little tired of it.

2000 (posted 15 apr)
It's been nearly three years since the last tMG LP, but in the meantime, John has been working on one of his best: The Coroner's Gambit. It was supposed to be a two-disc thing, with one lo-fi disc and one full-band disc. But the recordings didn't turn out the way John wanted and the whole project was scrapped. (I'm going on memory here, but I'm pretty sure I have the facts straight.) Because of this, I always kinda look at Full Force Galesburg as the last true album of tMG's lo-fi days. Even though TCG is lo-fi, it's clear that John had other plans. How different we would look at things if TCG was the first "full-band" record! Anyway, getting back to the album: I really like the way it has a unified spooky, sort of cloudy feeling to it. It's hard to convey what I mean, but I think TCG definitely feels more thematically unified than any earlier tMG LP.
Favorite song: The Coroner's Gambit. There is something so unusual about the music of this song. I know the guitar is tuned differently, but the actual sound the guitar makes sounds interesting. Lyrically, I like the way Death, the main character of the song, is mentioned at the very beginning and then not really mentioned again. Makes for interesting listening.
Favorite lyric: So many good options here. But I think I will go with Insurance Fraud #2: "bag full of oily rags, fifty cent lighter / dreams of retirement in Cancun burning ever brighter / there's a lot of ways to make money in this world / but I can't recommend insurance fraud". This song is, in one way, very straightforward: it's a cautionary tale. I used to interpret as an ironic song, but I have since come to take it more seriously as a seriously sad, almost grotesque story. I love the sparse lyrics and the way the story is told mostly through simple nouns.
Favorite live recordings: Blues In Dallas played live via telephone on WFMU, 19 oct 2000. John previews this song from his already-almost-finished next album and plays guitar in lieu of Casio (which itself is kind of amazing). The song has an even more peaceful quality to it. Second place favorite live recording is the pre-Martial Arts Weekend The Extra Glenns performance at Go! Rehearsal Studios, Carrboro, N.C., 15 oct 2000. John and Franklin play some great songs (read: Baltimore) and talk about how Bright Eyes put on a great live show.
Other favorite parts: Trick Mirror is kinda like a tMG holy grail, since I don't think it's ever been played since it was recorded; Coroner's Gambit [Original Take] is pretty cool… like the only remaining shred of that lost record; Abide With Me is fantastic because JD singing hymns is always fantastic; We Were Patriots because of the banjo; Island Garden Song because a lot of the time, I feel like the guy in the song.

2001 (posted 22 apr)
It's a light kind of year. Really just On Juhu Beach and the bizarrely untitled Sub-Pop singles album.
Favorite song: Transjordanian Blues. It's a rocking tune with a great title. Plus, it's the only song from On Juhu Beach that's made it into live sets, so that's worth something.
Favorite lyric: "I was happy to see you / I had lots of questions / and I put my hand to the wound in your head / ah, the blood! all of that blood! / all of that warm blood flowing freely from you" from Store. Is this song about Christ's crucifixion, or is it just me? Either way, it's really enjoyable to sing the "ah, the blood!" refrain.
Favorite live recordings: Edvard Munch (or is it Oslo 1888? does anyone really know?) played at the Olde Club, Swarthmore, Penn., 21 apr 2001. It's too bad this song was never properly recorded, because it's fantastic. "When the sun came up over Norway today / I saw you going away / there was nothing good in your going / there was nothing good in your going".
Other favorite parts: On Juhu Beach is my default "fall asleep" music and has often provided me 16 minutes of restfulness.

2002 (posted 30 apr)
All Hail West Texas! The first pre-4AD tMG album I heard, and definitely my most favorite. I have very strong emotional connections with nearly every song on this album. …I don't know if it's because these songs have had more time to sink, or what, but I wouldn't give this album up for anything! It's my personal "Sunset Tree", if that makes sense. Sonically, I think it's quite obviously the most polished and unified of the lo-fi albums.
Favorite song: Crows. It's so hard to pick a favorite song from AHWT, so I will simply avoid the problem and choose this very excellent tune from Devil in the Shortwave. Short and sweet and a great example of John's fantastic songwriting. Unusually enjoyable to yell-sing.
Favorite lyric: "down here where the watermelon grows so sweet / where I worship the ground underneath of your feet / we are experts in the art of frivolous spending // and it's gone on like this, for 3 years I guess / and we're drunk all the time and our lives are a mess / and the deathless love we swore to protect with our bodies / is stumbling across its bleak ending." from Fault Lines. The lyrics and imagery in this song are extremely good. Also it's very fun to yell. AHWT has a ton of great lyrics, though. Runners-up include Pink And Blue, Riches And Wonders, and Source Decay.
Favorite live recordings: Riches And Wonders played at Bottom of the Hill, San Francisco, Calif., 23 oct 2002 (hey, that was my 11th birthday!). John, playing solo, is worried he will mess up the words to Riches and Wonders—which really doesn't get played live very often—and the audience fills in gaps for him. Things go very well until the very end, at which point nobody can remember the words. Another one of my favorite live recordings from 2002 is the Green Room, Iowa City, Iowa, 10 mar 2002. This bootleg has my favorite versions of Yoga and Beach House. AH! and how could I forget: the set John played on WNUR in Evanston, Ill., 8 mar 2002. John begins by saying "we are the Mountain Goats, all of us" and then plays Hand Ball, which every person in the studio sings along with. It is glorious and wonderful. The opening line "I am the fire that burns without wood", sung by such a large amount of people, always tends to give me a shock of aesthetic delight.
Other favorite parts: Devil in the Shortwave, which is, I think the best of John's lo-fi EPs. And now it's time to give out my awards for Martial Arts Weekend, which are as follows: most beautiful song: The River Song; most humorous song: Going to Marrakesh; best song to sing along with: Going to Morocco; best lyrics: Terminal Grain.

So that wraps up the "pre-4AD" period. You can read my thoughts about the tMG catalog of 2003 onwards in a separate note.


  • TomG88

    This is awesome, keep it up!

    9. Apr. 2011, 13:14
  • valerie2776

    listening to that '99 CBGB show now and really enjoyed his later clarification that he is in fact not rumpelstiltskin, haha. This is awesome and I should really do something like it as I am super, super bad with remembering song names and what releases things are on.

    13. Apr. 2011, 3:45
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